The rather romantic image of St. Philip Neri as always laughing, joking, and cheerful is a far cry from reality, as anyone who has immersed himself in the saint’s biographies and hagiographies will know. St. Philip, well-versed in the spirituality of the Desert Fathers, displayed a profound and salutary disillusionment with the charms of the world. Well did he know the verse that reads, “Adulterers, know you not that the friendship of this world is the enemy of God? Whosoever therefore will be a friend of this world, becometh an enemy of God” (James 4:4).
St. Philip expressed this mépris du monde in a little-known song based on famous verses in Ecclesiastes. It is one of the few writings allegedly from his hand to have been preserved. While the attribution remains uncertain, the opinions expressed below conform to the Maxims of the Saint, especially his frequent attempts to provoke thoughts of death. He was known to approach worldly young men and ask what they desired. At each answer, he would like Socrates say, “And then? And then?” leading eventually on to death. At which point, many souls realized the vanity of their desires and subsequently converted. St. Philip also used to say, “The things of this world do not remain constantly with us, for if we do not leave them before we actually die, in death at least we all infallibly depart as empty-handed as we came.” And he exhorts all Christian souls, “We must not be behind time in doing good; for death will not be behind his time.”
The song can be found in an appendix to Fr. Faber’s English translation of The School of Saint Philip Neri by Giuseppe Crispino, whence I have transcribed it. The original Italian text may be seen there as well. I offer it here to my readers who many not have access to this rather obscure book for their edification and private devotions to the Saint.
I must refer my readers to a new recording of some Gregorian chant from Silverstream Priory. The beautiful responsory, Media Vita, is very timely during this pandemic. Here is the translation, passed on by the Prior:
In the midst of life we are in death; from whom shall we seek help, save Thee, O Lord? Who for our sins art justly angered. * Holy God, Holy mighty One, Holy merciful Saviour, hand us not over to the bitterness of death.
1. In Thee our fathers hoped; they hoped, and Thou hast liberated them. * Holy God, Holy mighty One, Holy merciful Saviour, hand us not over to the bitterness of death.
2. To Thee our fathers cried; they cried and were not confounded. * Holy God, Holy mighty One, Holy merciful Saviour, hand us not over to the bitterness of death.
3. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. * Holy God, Holy mighty One, Holy merciful Saviour, hand us not over to the bitterness of death.
Translation of the Media Vita
I know I speak for the monks when I encourage you to give it a listen and take some comfort from this ancient prayer of the Church in a time when death is all around.
I would particularly note the highly idiosyncratic harmonic arrangement used here. I have not heard any other renditions of this chant like it. I grew up listening to the Benedictines of Santo Domingo do Silos, and although I like their hauntingly pure Media Vita, the Silverstream version has a complexity and depth that feels very different, if just as moving.
The accompanying film is also of very high quality. I have known the monks of Silverstream for six years. This is by far the best video I’ve seen from them. It does a good job capturing the peculiar beauty of that monastery in Springtime, as well as the powerful sense of holiness that radiates throughout the house and grounds from the Blessed Sacrament. And for those who care about such things, there’s a lovely conical requiem chasuble from 3:23 on.
Give it a listen, and please consider supporting the monks through a donation or by shopping at their excellent online store. The monks are streaming their masses and some of their offices throughout this crisis, and I recommend following them for what will no doubt be a stirring and holy Paschal Triduum (albeit at a distance).
What follows is an original translation of L’Horloge de la Passion, a brief meditative text written by the Solitaire of Port-Royal, Jean Hamon (1618-1687), a doctor of medicine, mystic, and exegete. Hamon wrote L’Horloge for the sisters of Port-Royal to use during perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, perhaps during the Triduum. Perpetual adoration was a central feature of life at Port-Royal from 1647, when Mère Angélique returned from the unsuccessful venture of the Institut du Saint-Sacrement.
Each hour represents a different mystery of the Passion and is calibrated to follow the Passion narrative in real time. Hamon concludes with several prayers, probably composed first in Latin and then put into the vernacular. I have take the liberty of reproducing the Latin below while translating from the accompanying French.
This document, though originating from the heyday of Port-Royal, was only published in 1739 in the post-Unigenitus ferment of Jansenist print culture. It remains a very edifying text and a testament of the vitality of the spiritual life that characterized those wayward ascetics clustered around Port-Royal. I offer it here both out of historical interest for those who, like me, look at Port-Royal for academic reasons, and because I felt that such a text may be of some use and consolation to the faithful in this very unusual Holy Week, when death hedges us all around.
L’Horloge de la Passion
At six o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ washes the feet of His Apostles. Humility. Help to our neighbor.
At seven o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ institutes the Most Blessed Sacrament. Recognition and perpetual memory of this benefit.
At eight o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ prays to His Father for the salvation and union of His Elect. To renounce everything that can stops us from being one with Jesus Christ and our brethren.
At nine o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ is sad even unto death. Confidence in the weakness of Jesus Christ, who is our strength in our dejection and our miseries.
At ten o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ prays to His Father to take away the chalice of His sufferings. Submission to the will of God.
At eleven o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ enters into agony. To resist sin with courage.
At midnight: Jesus Christ, after having turned back the Jews by a single word, allows himself to be caught. To see God in all that man cause us to suffer.
At one o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ allows himself to be carried off by the Jews. Sweetness and humility in ill-treatment.
At two o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is presented to the High Priest. To revere God in secular and ecclesiastical authorities.
At three o’clock in the morning: Renunciation and penance of St. Peter. Fidelity in confessing the name of Jesus Christ. Humble return to Him after our falls.
At four o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is presented before the Council of the Jews. To listen to the word of God as being truly His word. To adorer the Truth, never to raise ourselves against it.
At five o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ mocked and outraged by the servants of the Priests. To suffer humbly both scorn and injuries.
At six o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is brought before Pilate. Adoration and imitation of the silence of Jesus Christ, when we are accused.
At seven o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is sent to Herod. To pass as foolish before men even though we be truly wise.
At eight o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is scourged. To take part in the sufferings of Jesus Christ and His members.
At nine o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is crowned with thorns. To adore Jesus Christ as our King. To suffer with him, is to reign.
At ten o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ is condemned to death. To die to one’s self is to live in Jesus.
At eleven o’clock in the morning: Jesus Christ carries His Cross. Let us carry ours after him; he carries it with us.
At noon: Jesus Christ is crucified. To attach ourselves to Jesus Chris, and to desire to be attached by Him to the Cross.
At one o’clock in the afternoon: Jesus Christ is lifted up upon the Cross. To raise our eyes and heart towards the mysterious and divine Serpent.
At two o’clock in the afternoon: Jesus Christ speaks to His Father, to the Blessed Virgin Mary His Mother, and to St. Jean. Attention to these divine words that comprehend our duties.
At three o’clock in the afternoon: Jesus Christ gives up the ghost. To adore His death; to unite ours to him.
At four o’clock in the afternoon: The open side of Jesus Christ sheds blood and water. Rest in the Side and in the Wounds of Jesus Christ. To honor the Sacraments established in the Church.
At five o’clock in the evening: Jesus Christ is buried, and placed in the tomb. To be buried with Him. To hope for the Resurrection.
Prayers – That one can say in adoring the Death of Jesus Christ
Ut beatam horam Mortis tuae adoramus, Domine, da nobis ut horam mortis nostrae, quam solus nosti, perfecto corde & vivendo & moriendo adoremus.
Vouchsafe unto us grace, O Lord, that in adoring the hour of Thy Death, we might adore, in living and dying with a heart perfectly submitted to Thine commands, the hour of our death, that is known to none but thee.
Domine Jesu, qui mori voluisti ne moreremur, sed de morte ad vitam transiremus, recordare Mortis tuae in tempore mortis meae, cum nec tui nec mei recordari potuero.
Lord Jesus, who hast desired to die to deliver us from death, and to cause us to pass from death to life, remember Thou Thy Death at the hour of mine, when I will be no longer in a state to think of either myself or Thee.
Mortem meam quae poena peccati est, tutetur & protegat Mors tua, quae tollit peccata mundi, ut jam pie cogitando quia mortuus es, tunc moriendo non moriar.
May Thy Death that nullifies the sins of the world be my protection in death, which shall be the penalty of sin; and in thinking with piety that Thou art dead, in dying even may I not die.
Versetur semper ante oculos meos tempus Mortis tuae, quae mihi sit fons vitae, cum vita mea defecerit, ut in Morte tua vitam invenire possim qui in vita mea mortem singulis diebus invenio.
May Thy Death always be present to me, so that it may be unto me a source of immortal life when I will lose this corruptible life; and instead of often finding death in my life, may I find life in Thy Death.
Fac, Domine, semper conjungam cogitationem Mortis tuae cogitationi mortis meae, ut quod in morte mea amarum esse potest, benedictione Mortis tuae dulcescat; sicque vitae permanentis amore, mortis transeuntis levem ictum non reformidem.
Vouchsafe unto me the grace, O Lord, of ever uniting myself to the thought of Thy Death in the remembrance of mine, so that what there might be of bitterness in my death might be sweetened by the blessing of Thine; and thus that the love of an eternal life might cause me not to dread anything of the blow, so light, of a voyaging death.
Bene vivam, Domine, ut bene moriar. Ut bene vivam, vivam de te. Ut bene moriar, moriar in te,. Vitam meam informet Vita tua, ut sancta sit; & mortem meam defendat Mors tua, salus nostra, ut sit salutaris,
Vouchsafe unto me the grace, O Lord, of living well, that I may die well. May I live in Thee, that I might live well: and to die well, may I die in Thee. May Thy life be the rule of my life, so that it may be holy; and may Thy Death, which is the cause of our salvation, safeguard my death so that it may procure unto me salvation.
Ernest Dowson – a frail, unhappy poet driven by wild passions. Also a Roman Catholic. (Source)
Recently, I have discovered the work of the poet Ernest Dowson (1867-1900). He has swiftly become a favourite. His Decadent verse originated the phrases “gone with the wind” and “the days of wine and roses.” He was also a Catholic convert. His poetry often explores the contrast between the perishable delights of the world and the undying realm of the supernatural. In Dowson, we see the forked path that comes with the recognition of the world’s vanity: the choice lies between hedonistic decadence and the rigors of ascesis and contemplation. These two monastic poems express precisely that tension in his sad life as well as his powerful artistic vision.
Nuns of the Perpetual Adoration
Calm, sad, secure; behind high convent walls,
These watch the sacred lamp, these watch and pray:
And it is one with them when evening falls,
And one with them the cold return of day.
These heed not time; their nights and days they make
Into a long, returning rosary,
Whereon their lives are threaded for Christ’s sake;
Meekness and vigilance and chastity.
A vowed patrol, in silent companies,
Life-long they keep before the living Christ.
In the dim church, their prayers and penances
Are fragrant incense to the Sacrificed.
Outside, the world is wild and passionate;
Man’s weary laughter and his sick despair
Entreat at their impenetrable gate:
They heed no voices in their dream of prayer.
They saw the glory of the world displayed;
They saw the bitter of it, and the sweet;
They knew the roses of the world should fade,
And be trod under by the hurrying feet.
Therefore they rather put away desire,
And crossed their hands and came to sanctuary
And veiled their heads and put on coarse attire:
Because their comeliness was vanity.
And there they rest; they have serene insight
Of the illuminating dawn to be:
Mary’s sweet Star dispels for them the night,
The proper darkness of humanity.
Calm, sad, secure; with faces worn and mild:
Surely their choice of vigil is the best?
Yea! for our roses fade, the world is wild;
But there, beside the altar, there, is rest.
Through what long heaviness, assayed in what strange fire,
Have these white monks been brought into the way of peace,
Despising the world’s wisdom and the world’s desire,
Which from the body of this death bring no release?
Within their austere walls no voices penetrate;
A sacred silence only, as of death, obtains;
Nothing finds entry here of loud or passionate;
This quiet is the exceeding profit of their pain:
From many lands they came, in divers fiery ways;
Each knew at last the vanity of earthly joys;
And one was crowned with thorns, and one was crowned with bays,
And each was tired at last of the world’s foolish noise.
It was not theirs with Dominic to preach God’s holy wrath,
They were too stern to bear sweet Francis’ gentle sway;
Theirs was a higher calling and a steeper path,
To dwell alone with Christ, to meditate and pray.
A cloistered company, they are companionless,
None knoweth here the secret of his brother’s heart:
They are but come together for more loneliness,
Whose bond is solitude and silence all their part.
O beatific life! Who is there shall gainsay,
Your great refusal’s victory, your little loss,
Deserting vanity for the more perfect way,
The sweeter service of the most dolorous Cross.
Ye shall prevail at last! Surely ye shall prevail!
Your silence and austerity shall win at last:
Desire and mirth, the world’s ephemeral lights shall fail,
The sweet star of your queen is never overcast.
We fling up flowers and laugh, we laugh across the wine;
With wine we dull our souls and careful strains of art;
Our cups are polished skulls round which the roses twine:
None dares to look at Death who leers and lurks apart.
Move on, white company, whom that has not sufficed!
Our viols cease, our wine is death, our roses fail:
Pray for our heedlessness, O dwellers with the Christ!
Though the world fall apart, surely ye shall prevail.